"Endowed By Their Creator"
"We hold these
truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Signers of the
American Declaration of
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more
perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,
provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and
secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do
ordain and establish this
for the United States of America."
for Which it Stands"
"One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"
score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this
continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to
the proposition that all men are created equal.
"Now we are engaged in a great
civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so
conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a
great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a
portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who
here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is
altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
"But, in a larger sense, we can
— we can not consecrate
— we can not hallow
this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here,
have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the
living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work
which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It
is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task
remaining before us
— that from these honored dead we take
increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last
full measure of devotion
— that we here highly resolve that
these dead shall not have died in vain
— that this nation,
under God, shall have a new birth of freedom
— and that
government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall
not perish from the earth."
Abraham Lincoln, The
November 19, 1863
"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent
coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new
ways .... If we do not act, we shall
surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time
reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without
morality, and strength without sight."
Martin Luther King, Jr
Address delivered to the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about
4 April 1967, New York City
to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience
leaves me no other choice.
Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very
delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see
you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed
tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that I
consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett, Dr.
Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, some of the distinguished leaders and
personalities of our nation. And of course it's always good to come back
to Riverside Church. Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege
of preaching here almost every year in that period, and it is always a
rich and rewarding experience to come to this great church and this
"I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my
conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because
I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization
which has brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About
Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the
sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I
read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That
time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they
call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of
inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their
government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human
spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of
conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world.
Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in
the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being
mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have
found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we
must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to
our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for
surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant
number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the
prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent
based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.
Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its
movement, and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its
guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness
that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own
silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have
called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many
persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of
their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you
speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of
dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you
hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I hear them,
though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless
greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not
really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions
suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. In the light
of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try
to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path
from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church-the church in Montgomery, Alabama,
where I began my pastorate-leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved
nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National
Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it
an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need
for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an
attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons
of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful
resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons
to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and
history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never
resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however,
I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but
rather to my fellow Americans.
Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I
have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral
vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile
connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have
been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in
that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the
poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were
experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam,
and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some
idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that
America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in
rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued
to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction
tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the
poor and to attack it as such.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became
clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes
of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and
their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions
relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young
men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand
miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not
found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly
faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV
screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable
to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal
solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they
would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in
the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows
out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three
years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the
desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov
cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to
offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that
social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But
they asked, and rightly so, "What about Vietnam?" They asked if our own
nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to
bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew
that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the
oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the
greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For
the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of
the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and
thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this
further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the
soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision
to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction
that America would never be free or saved from itself until the
descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they
still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black
bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
O, yes, I
say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!
Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern
for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.
If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must
read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest
hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet
determined that "America will be" are led down the path of protest and
dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America
were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in
1954. And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a
commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before
for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond
But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the
meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the
relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that
I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the
war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for
all men-for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for
black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they
forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his
enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the
Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can
I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads
from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most
valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share
with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the
calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and
brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned,
especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come
tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the
burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and
loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go
beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to
speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation,
for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make
these humans any less our brothers.
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways
to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the
people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side,
not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in
Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of
war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too,
because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution
there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people
proclaimed their own independence in 1954-in 1945 rather-after a
combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist
revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they
quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of
freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support
France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then
that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again
fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the
international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we
rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a
government that had been established not by China-for whom the
Vietnamese have no great love-but by clearly indigenous forces that
included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant
real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right
of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in
their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end of the war
we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the
French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of their
reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge
financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had
lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this
tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land
reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead there
came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the
temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we
supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man,
Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted
out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused
even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as
all of this was presided over by United States influence and then by
increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the
insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown
they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictators seemed
to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and
The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments
in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and
without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and
received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform.
Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow
Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd
them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where
minimal social needs are rarely
met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we
poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must
weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the
precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty
casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So
far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander
into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without
clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the
children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the
children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and
as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land
reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them,
just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the
concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent
Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and
the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have
cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist
revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have
supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their
women and children and killed their men.
Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only
solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases
and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call "fortified
hamlets." The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new
Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts?
We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These,
too, are our brothers.
Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for
those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National
Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call "VC" or
"communists"? What must they think of the United States of America when
they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which
helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What
do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own
taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we
speak of "aggression from the North" as if there were nothing more
essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with
violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence
while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must
understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions.
Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their
violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of
destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is
less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving them
the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are
aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet we appear
ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized
political parallel government will not have a part? They ask how we can
speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled
by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of
new government we plan to help form without them, the only party in real
touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny
the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded.
Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to
build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of a
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when
it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to
know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see
the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may
learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called
So, too, with Hanoi. In the North, where our bombs now pummel the land,
and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but
understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of
confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American
intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence
against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in
the French Commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and
the willfulness of the colonial
armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination
at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they
controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a
temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with
Diem to prevent elections which could have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to
power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed
again. When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must
Also, it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence
of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the
initial military breach of the Geneva Agreement concerning foreign
troops. They remind us that they did not begin to send troops in large
numbers and even supplies into the South until American forces had moved
into the tens of thousands.
Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the
earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed
that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has
watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now
he has surely heard the increasing international rumors of American
plans for an invasion of the North. He knows the bombing and shelling
and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy.
Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears
the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops
thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred, or
rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these
last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to
understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as deeply
concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to
me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the
brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other
and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for
they must know after a short period there that none of the things we
claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know
that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese,
and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the
wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of
God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those
whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose
culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are
paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and
corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world
as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves
America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this
war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently
one of them wrote these words, and I quote:
Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the
Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The
Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It
is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the
possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process
they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of
America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and
democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the
world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop
our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be
left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible,
clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a
maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that
we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in
Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese
people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply
from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in
Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic
I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should
do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating
ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action
will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast
Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference
Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front
has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in
any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.
Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in
accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement. [sustained applause]
Part of our ongoing [applause continues], part of our ongoing commitment
might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese
who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation
Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have
done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it
available in this country if necessary. Meanwhile [applause], meanwhile,
we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge
our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We
must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists
in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions
with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for
them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the
alternative of conscientious objection. [sustained applause] I am
pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy
students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to
all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust
one. [applause] Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age
to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious
objectors. [applause] These are the times for real choices and not false
ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if
our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions
must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must
Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and
sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade
against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I
wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the
American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and
if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing
"clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They
will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about
Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South
Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and
attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound
change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So such
thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of
the living God.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to
him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During
the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which
has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela.
This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for
the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It
tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in
Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already
been active against rebels in Peru.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F.
Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make
peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
[applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our
nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution
impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that
come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced
that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a
nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly
begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented
society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers,
profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than
people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and
militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness
and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we
are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will
be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole
Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be
constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's
highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It
comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look
across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing
huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the
profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries,
and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the
landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western
arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing
to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of
war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of
burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with
orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins
of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody
battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot
be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues
year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs
of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well
lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a
tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that
the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There
is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with
bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against
communism. [applause] War is not the answer. Communism will never be
defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join
those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the
United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations.
These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We
must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive
thrust for democracy [applause], realizing that our greatest defense
against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We
must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty,
insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed
of communism grows and develops.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting
against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the
wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being
born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as
never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We
in the West must support these revolutions.
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of
communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations
that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world
have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to
feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism
is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow
through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies
in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a
sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism,
and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge
the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when "every
valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low
[Audience:] (Yes); the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our
loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation
must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to
preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern
beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an
all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft
misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by
the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become
an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am
not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I'm not speaking of
that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force
which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying
principle of life.
Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate
reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about
ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint
John: "Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every
one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not
knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God
dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us." Let us hope that this
spirit will become the order of the day.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the
altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the
ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of
nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
As Arnold Toynbee says: "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the
saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and
evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that
love is going to have the last word." Unquote.
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We
are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding
conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.
Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us
standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in
the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out
desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to
every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues
of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late."
There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance
or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and
having writ moves on."
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent
coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new
ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing
world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall
surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time
reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without
morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and
bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of
the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall
we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too
hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate
against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or
will there be another message-of longing, of hope, of solidarity with
their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The
choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose
in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently
Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide, In the strife of
Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God's
new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by
forever 'twixt that darkness and that light. Though the cause of evil
prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong Though her portions be the
scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong Yet that scaffold sways the
future, and behind the dim unknown Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform
this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will
make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling
discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we
will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all
over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like
waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. [sustained applause]
Enemies of Man
Tyranny, Poverty, Disease and War"
trumpet summons us again.... a struggle against the common enemies of
man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."
John F. Kennedy
Friday, January 20, 1961
Heavy snow fell the night before the inauguration, but thoughts
about cancelling the plans were overruled. The election of 1960
had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts
was eager to gather support for his agenda. He attended Holy
Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before
joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol. The
Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform
spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by
Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at
Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower,
Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow
we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of
freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying
renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and
Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed
nearly a century and three quarters ago.
"The world is
very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power
to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human
life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our
forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief
that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the
state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not
forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let
the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe
alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of
Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by
a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and
unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human
rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to
which we are committed today at home and around the world.
nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay
any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any
friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the
success of liberty.
This much we
To those old
allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge
the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we
cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is
little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at
odds and split asunder.
To those new
States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our
word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed
away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall
not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall
always hope to find them strongly supporting their own
freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly
sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to
break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to
help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not
because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek
their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot
help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
To our sister
republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge—to
convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for
progress—to assist free men and free governments in casting off
the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope
cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors
know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or
subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power
know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its
To that world
assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best
hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced
the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support—to
prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective—to
strengthen its shield of the new and the weak—and to enlarge the
area in which its writ may run.
those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer
not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest
for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by
science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental
We dare not
tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient
beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never
can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from
our present course—both sides overburdened by the cost of modern
weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly
atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror
that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
So let us
begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign
of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us
never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those
problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and
precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and
bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the
absolute control of all nations.
sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its
terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts,
eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts
sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of
Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed
And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of
suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a
new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong
are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it
be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this
Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest
the final success or failure of our course. Since this country
was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to
give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young
Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms,
though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled
we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight
struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in
tribulation"—a struggle against the common enemies of man:
tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance,
North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful
life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long
history of the world, only a few generations have been granted
the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I
do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not
believe that any of us would exchange places with any other
people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the
devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country
and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light
And so, my
fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask
what you can do for your country.
citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but
what together we can do for the freedom of man.
whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world,
ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice
which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure
reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go
forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His
help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be